“How long are those boats?”
I’d spotted a gnomish character in my rearview mirror. He was standing behind my car in the parking lot of the YMCA gym. Two kayaks were strapped atop my car.
“Nineteen feet, one inch,” I responded. He stared dreamily at the sleek, beautiful boats — serious seagoing kayaks.
“What do you use them for?” A fair question in central Arizona.
I told Asher — as he’d introduced himself — that my wife Tina and I were training on the local lakes to go up to Ketchikan to paddle Behm Canal in Misty Fjords National Monument.
“Where is that?”
“In Alaska’s Panhandle. Ketchikan is where the so-called ‘bridge to nowhere’ was proposed. It’s on Revillagigedo Island. We plan on circumnavigating the island, a distance of about 150 miles. It’ll take about three weeks.”
“What does it take to do that?” His interest was bordering on dumbstruck reverence.
Asher wanted to know more, so I encapsulated the details: “The kayaking would take about ten days. With a few preparation, rest, and sightseeing days, it would be a three-week trip — not counting getting up there and back on the Alaska Ferry.”
Asher’s rheumy eyes glistened with wonder. I told him we’d paddled the entire Inside Passage years ago, and that I’d written the only sea kayaking guidebook to the 1,500 miles of protected waterway. Behm Canal is one of many sinuous, braided channels through the archipelago that forms the Inside Passage. My lifelong project was to try to document all of the many channels for subsequent editions of my guide. At 70, this was likely my last essay.
“What does it take to do that?” Asher’s interest was bordering on dumbstruck reverence.
I kept it simple: “A kayak, a drysuit, basic kayaking and camping skills, stuff to camp out in constant rain — Ketchikan gets 156” of rainfall a year — and temperatures in the 50 to 60-degree range. Not to mention the fitness and determination to accomplish it, requiring constant, hard paddling for about six hours per day at a rate of three mph.”
Stats that would turn most people off . . . instead, Asher’s eyes filled with wonder and inquiry. Perhaps out of modesty or not wishing to seem intemperate he hesitated to ask whether I thought him capable of accomplishing such a trip, but I could sense his disposition.
His leathery face bristling with stubble, he looked like a craggy, retired stevedore. I asked him how old he was. “Seventy-five,” he answered with a certain gleam in his eye that fished for a compliment or at least respectful acknowledgement. (Above the waist he looked like the Hulk.)
Asher smiled and asked if I did pullups. I answered that yes, as a rock climber, I made pullups part of my work-out routine. So he invited me into the gym for a pull-up contest.
Now I’m not in the least bit macho and avoid any sort of pissing contest, but in the spirit of things I decided to play along. However, instead of heading for the chinup bar, Asher beelined to a cable machine that duplicates the pull-up motion. Its adjustable weights ranged all the way up to 350 pounds, way beyond either of our body weights. To allow for greater-than-body-weight pull-downs, a padded bar atop the thighs could be adjusted to lock oneself in.
Asher pinned the 350-pound plate at the bottom and gave me a knowing glance. He sat down, grabbed the cable handles, locked his thighs under the padded bar, and psyched up to pull the 350 pounds. I counted how many repetitions he completed. He then got up and shot me a sideways grin that implied, “Your turn — equal that, youngster!”
I’m not in the least bit macho and avoid any sort of pissing contest, but in the spirit of things I decided to play along.
A bit nervous attempting a machine I’d never used before, I disclaimed, “These aren’t real pull-ups,” and then sat down and grabbed the handles. To my surprise I was not only able to pull down the 350 pounds but also to equal Asher’s repetitions. I could have done more but, as I said, I’m not into pissing contests . . . and this was just his getting-to-know each other routine.
Afterward, we walked back to our cars together and, before parting, Asher popped the question: “How much would you charge to take me along on your trip? I have the time and the money.”
Whatever his age, this guy reeked of enthusiasm, was fit and strong . . . and had the time and the money. I asked about his background. When he said he was a “life coach,” I despaired of the turn this encounter had taken. To me, “life coach” suggests a devious combination of servility, condescension, and golddigger; the modern equivalent of a snake oil salesman; a flim-flam man who abets the incompetent to achieve mediocrity and overcharges for adult babysitting.
Asher sensed my skepticism. He elaborated that he helped victims of extreme trauma to regain their lives, specializing in physical recovery and therapy along with psychological coaching. I was reassured. Had he ever kayaked? Yes, he’d circumnavigated Espiritu Santo Island in the Sea of Cortes (he didn’t add that it was an introductory sea kayaking course led by a paid guide), and yes, he owned a kayak, a small toy boat for tooling around on lakes and streams.
It was at this point that my libertarianism got the best of me. “I wouldn’t charge you anything. I don’t want to be responsible for you. But (it’s a free country; you can go anywhere you want and I can’t stop you) you’re welcome to tag along (as an independent, separate entity joining up simply for conviviality, with no responsibility for each other).” Please note, dear reader, that the parenthetical remarks were hidden libertarian premises in my response to Asher. But I was overcome by this man’s infectious enthusiasm, a trait I’d spent years trying to instill in students and clients. There was no way I’d discourage him.
To me, “life coach” suggests a devious combination of servility, condescension, and golddigger; a flim-flam man who abets the incompetent to achieve mediocrity and overcharges for adult babysitting.
Asher’s eyes gleamed. He was ready to jump out of his skin with excitement. This was, to him, serious bucket list territory. In his mind, hooking up with me was hitting life’s jackpot. He immediately became target fixated.
With just a few weeks before launch, I told him he had to secure a sea-worthy kayak, buy a dry suit (no simple matter for either, since one becomes a second skin while the other locks to one’s hips, converting legs to something akin to a mermaid’s flukes), and read all the preliminary chapters in my guidebook for training, equipment, and necessary skills.
* * *
In the interim, Asher posed a puzzle. He lived in Dallas. He’d run into me by chance while visiting his grandkids in Prescott. After he returned home, his contact with me was sparse, something that worried me no end. Even though I bore no formal responsibility for him, I didn’t just want his passion to be rewarded not just with success; I wanted him to prevail in comfort. He posted no detailed questions about equipment, food, or anything else. He did, however, notify me that that he was paddling his little boat 49 miles a week for training, that he’d bought a dry suit and had located a 14’ kayak for rent in Ketchikan. I responded that he required a larger boat to carry two weeks’ worth of gear and food in an inclement environment.
Asher flew to Ketchikan a few days early — to test his boat, dry-run pack it, and get a feel for southeast Alaska. Tina and I arrived later by the Alaska Ferry with our boats. On the day of departure we met at the Bar Harbor launch ramp. Asher had gotten there early and packed his boat. Watching us pack, he readjusted some of his load; then he revealed that he needed assistance with a couple of things. For one, he couldn’t don his one-piece dry suit by himself; and, his back and shoulders being so broad, muscle-bound, and stiff, he couldn’t snap his spray skirt on the cockpit behind his back by himself.
So much for separate, “independent” expeditions — Asher would be unable to do the trip by himself. I resigned myself to the fact that from then on Asher was our project. Besides his physical therapy training, he was trained in humanistic psychology (as I later found out), a discipline that prejudices its practitioner to interact with and intuit people in certain curious ways. One of these is “group dynamics,” which makes it inconceivable for someone trained in that way to conceive of an aggregation of folks, each of whom acts completely independently. For adepts in “group dynamics,” people in close proximity constitute “a group.” Therefore, he, Tina, and I were “a group,” and no intellectual gymnastics could change that.
June 6 dawned clear and windless. Each of our kayaks on the Bar Harbor boat ramp, fully loaded, weighed in at about 160 pounds. We helped each other launch. Three gigantic cruise ships were docked in Ketchikan harbor. Our first task was to swing clear of them, in case they attempted to reposition themselves. I told Asher to huddle close, which he mostly did, in spite of his tendency to outpace us.
Asher had an aggressive, competitive paddling style, twirling his paddle like a windmill in a gale — tough on the deltoids and a most inefficient motion to maintain continuously for six to eight hours. Focused furiously on his paddling and oblivious to any short-term target strategy, he soon lost track of our location and direction. Inevitably, he wandered off and got into trouble.
Alaska’s winter weather pattern hadn’t yet given up the ghost, a condition of which we were still unaware. Fierce southwest winds picked up in the early afternoon, creating two- to three-foot waves. Seeking the shelter of paddling close to shore, Asher instinctively headed there. But the waves were crashing against the talus blocks built up along Ketchikan’s suburb’s shore as a breakwater to prevent erosion. The waves ricocheted off chaotically, creating clapotis, a localized sea state resembling a punk hairdo. We yelled and screamed, to no avail. The belated realization that he was heading out of the mixing bowl and into the blender caused Asher to reverse course — almost too late. Long sea kayaks don’t turn on a dime. Only his incredible strength saved him.
Revillagigedo Island is incut by six or seven (depending on how one tallies them) fjords that must be crossed in order to circle the island. Carroll Inlet, the widest at two miles, takes half an hour to cross when paddling with dispatch — something I had to gird my shoulders to do. My right shoulder was throbbing with pain from a previous injury. Asher, with his physical therapy training, assessed it and pronounced it fit for the crossing. Past Point Sykes, on the far side, we scoured the shore for a campsite.
Asher reversed course — almost too late. Long sea kayaks don’t turn on a dime. Only his incredible strength saved him.
The entire Inside Passage is challenging campsite territory. Banks are steep, rocky, or lined with cliffs. In other places the nearly impenetrable rain forest runs right down to the high tide line. With 15-foot tidal fluctuations what seem like attractive beaches at anything less than high tide can turn into an inundated wallow in the middle of the night. Otherwise, a place that might provide a suitable spot is either marshy or packed with drift logs stacked like giant Chinese pickup sticks.
Back in the 1970s, the National Park Service began kayak patrols in Misty Fjords. As a result of these excursions, it published a handout for kayakers locating the campsites the rangers used. The handout — in descriptive prose, not a dot on a map — indicated two possible spots past Point Sykes. In and out endless coves and around headlands we scoured the shore for the purported spots. No dice. Perhaps after nearly 50 years they’d eroded or been overgrown.
But then, around a bend, we spotted a gently sloping shingle beach in the distance and went for it. Two skiffs were parked on the cobbles. Above the high tide line a giant tarp covered a cleared area. Underneath, a welcoming campfire, log benches, and a rustic counter beckoned. Folks who looked like they didn’t belong out here — draped in dime-store, clear serape ponchos — engaged in frivolous banter. But one who did — big, bearded, and slickered — approached us and offered a hot cup of coffee. I asked if there was an out-of-way spot where we could pitch our tents.
The outfitter pointed to some tiny clearings outside the giant tarp’s protective covering. He explained that at 8 pm — still daylight at this latitude in June — they would all depart and we could make ourselves at home, but by 6 am they’d return and we had to clear out. We were camped in the outfitter’s fishing camp. His business consisted of taking cruise ship tourists out for a day of fishing in backwoods Alaska. We could help ourselves to the bin of bottled water on the counter.
Tina helped Asher kit up his tent. He had never set it up and was clueless as to how to do it. Afterward he worked on my bad shoulder, which for the rest of the trip caused me no trouble. But Asher’s dinner was a minor cause for concern. While Tina and I cooked up a hot pot of noodles with a tin of bully beef and gravy mix, Asher opened a tinfoil pouch and ate its contents directly with a spoon. Perhaps he was so hungry, I thought, he decided not to set up his stove and heat his dinner, so Tina offered to warm it up on our stove. He declined, saying he hadn’t brought a stove or cooking pot, figuring it would take up space. It was the first indication that Asher had no inkling how the cold and wet could sap one’s strength and morale. But he did gratefully accept a hot cup of tea.
We launched before 6 AM as the new batch of cruise ship dudes arrived. We were headed for Alava cabin, a remote Forest Service building we’d rented for one night. It’s one of a series of backwoods rustic cabins and shelters peppered throughout Southeast that are available for rent and stocked with dry, split firewood. Again, the south winds freshened, creating white caps abeam — difficult, tiresome, and dangerous conditions — especially at Thorne Arm, the second inlet we had to cross.
Behm Canal, with Alava Bay ensconced at its entrance, promised more protected waters than the open Revillagigedo Channel we’d been paddling in. From Alava’s mouth we couldn’t see the cabin, and nearly despaired — it had been a very long day — until around one more incut bend the tiny structure appeared.
The 15-foot vertical tide fluctuations sometimes translated to as much as a one-mile horizontal distance from water’s edge to dependably dry, inland ground, depending on the coastal slope. Today, a quarter-mile carry sufficed. Landing and launching always required multiple gear and boat carries up to or down from camp, since a fully loaded kayak was too heavy to haul. After the schlepping, Asher volunteered to provide us all with potable water — water, I assumed, from the nearby stream — with the two-gallon gravity water purifier he’d brought. But he completed the task so quickly, I suspected something was wrong. It was. He’d filled the Katadyn bladder with salt water. I immediately emptied it, telling him that with salt water the ultra-fine-meshed filter would quickly clog and be useless, adding that it was designed to filter biological contaminants such as giardia, not desalinate sea water.
He had no idea . . .
After the two days of tough paddling we decided to lay over a day at the warm cabin and dry our wet togs. Outside, Behm Canal looked to be in full conditions; it channeled the south winds up its increasingly narrowing seaway. We’d find out later that the winter weather pattern was late in leaving. Still, mornings were relatively calm, allowing us to paddle in proximity and get to know each other better.
He soldiered on, thinking hardship on a camping trip was par for the course. His equanimity and good humor never wavered — even when the effects of cold and sleep deprivation began to take their toll.
Asher was a curious combination of intelligence, ignorance (he wasn’t widely read and had only glanced at my guidebook), wisdom, forbearance, and complete impracticality. Having lived all his life in an urban environment, he was agog at his surroundings. Tides and currents were a complete mystery to him. He asked me to explain them, yet celestial phenomena were outside his ken. If there was a difficult or roundabout way of getting something done, he’d find it first. He said he’d lived his life through metaphors and marveled at our pragmatism and ability to problem solve. From now on, he averred, he was going to make a concerted effort to look at reality as it really was. We called him “the rebbe,” a nickname he found flattering and treasured.
Our first evening out of Alava we again struggled to find a suitable site for camp, a situation made worse by a deteriorating wind and sea state complete with breaking shore waves, mostly on rocks and logs. Finally one tiny protected cove with two flat spots just above that night’s projected high tide sealed the deal, while a short intermission from the incessant rain gave us ample time to set up our tents and fix dinner.
After Tina and I ate, she hurdled and slalomed over and around the giant beached logs to check on Asher. His tent was up and he was recording into his journal. The tent was only slightly bigger than a coffin. To save weight and number of poles, it was asymmetrical, with entry on one side — a design not given to intuitive assembly. Asher hadn’t bothered to read the instructions. A cursory glance indicated everything was fine. But when the night’s deluge began, his tent collapsed, no doubt aided by a pole he had incorrectly forced into the wrong grommet, a pole he subsequently broke, rendering the tent useless. His down bag — a no-no in wet environments — soaked and also collapsed.
But Asher didn’t tell us about his troubles. He soldiered on, thinking hardship on a camping trip was par for the course. His equanimity and good humor never wavered — even when the effects of cold and sleep deprivation began to take their toll. We first noticed subtle changes when the sparkle in his eyes turned tired, when he uncharacteristically stumbled, and when he lingered longer on his chores, and . . . though his paddling strength never wavered, he stopped racing ahead.
Finally, at one camp where conditions required we set our tents in close proximity, Asher said that his tent didn’t work, adding that he needed a big fire to dry out his sleeping bag. I suggested he give starting a fire a go — no small feat in a rain forest — while Tina assessed his tent and I gathered firewood.
After many tries, I took over and showed him how to start a fire. Meanwhile Tina discovered a pole on his tent that was not only broken but also forced into the wrong sleeve. While he and Tina worked out the tent’s proper composition, I set up a trellis made of branches to hold his sleeping bag the right distance from the fire so it would dry without burning.
After much to-and-froing on the tent Tina figured out that a piece of the broken pole was missing, making her diagnosis much more difficult on such an eccentrically shaped tent. So she found a supple sapling with which to splint the broken pole with duct tape. Asher was very impressed with her ingenuity. By now he was accepting hot drinks from us regularly.
Lunch stops required vigilance, not just for bears but also for tidal fluctuations. Tides come in and go out about every 12.5 hours, so it takes about 6.25 hours for the water to rise or recede. In one hour — about the length of our lunch break — a fifteen-foot tide can wax or wane over two feet. Depending on the slope of the shore, the resulting distance to the water can be altered considerably. This fluctuation affects a beached boat. It can leave a 160 lb. boat high and dry — a pain to refloat; or, on a rising tide, float the boat away. So, during lunch, we had to constantly, incrementally reposition our boats up or down.
Launching on a receding tide called for some fine timing. With the boat partially beached for stability, the kayaker had to insert himself in the narrow and tight cockpit, lock himself in, attach the drum-tight sprayskirt, make sure everything was shipshape, ready his paddle, and have enough draft to knuckle himself and his boat off shore — all made a bit tougher with full dry suits, PFDs, and sometimes gloves. With Asher’s lack of experience and need for help attaching his sprayskirt, his timing was sometimes off and he’d have to get out and start the process all over again.
Lunch stops required vigilance, not just for bears but also for tidal fluctuations.
One day, during the period when he was particularly sluggish from cold and lack of sleep, his timing for launch after lunch was off. Try as he might, he couldn’t push himself into the water as it receded faster than he’d figured. To save time, Tina — being very quick and agile — told him to hold on. She popped out of her boat, ran to him, grabbed his bow, and attempted to help push him into the water.
She lifted and pushed, she huffed and she puffed, but she couldn’t budge 350 pounds of rebbe and kayak. She wasn’t one to give up easily. She tried again. On the third attempt Asher was afloat. But the price she paid was dear.
That evening we reached Manzanita Bay, about halfway around Revillagigedo Island, and well protected from the winds scouring Behm Canal. At almost anything but high tide, the whole bay shoals with sandbars, creating an over-one-mile distance from its entrance to the Forest Service lean-to shelter at its head. Luckily, we arrived at mid-tide — only a half-mile carry to camp. But Tina couldn’t manage it; her shoulder throbbed so. Asher and I lugged everything up.
On one of the long carries up to camp Asher said, “Robert, I want to thank you for letting me come along on this trip. It means a lot to me.”
He had come to appreciate, even admire, my straightforwardness — a quality essential in any wilderness outing, where artifice of any sort can be detrimental. After choosing my words carefully I told him that I did not “let him come along on this trip,” that my premise as to his participation was quite different, especially since he was a stranger to me; and essentially, that where he went and what he did was his business, something I not only couldn’t control but thought wrong to try to control. I couldn’t keep him from kayaking Misty Fjords National Monument and, in fact, didn’t want to quash his enthusiasm, especially since, on first impressions, he seemed to be capable of doing it.
My assumption — and I apologized to him for not being more explicit — was that he would mount his own, solo, expedition completely separate from ours and that if and when we met on the water, we would share in the conviviality without being explicitly dependent on one another.
Asher didn’t respond.
* * *
Tina had a miserable night. Her shoulder was so painful that by morning she couldn’t move her arm. Asher diagnosed it as a rotator cuff injury, one that would require immobilization followed by medical assessment — the rotator cuff being very delicate. There was no way she could paddle. She needed to be evacuated.
Emergency procedures out here are complex. Cellphones don’t work: there are no antennae. A marine radio, which we had, mostly works along line-of-sight only. An EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) sends out a continuous SOS with one’s location. The latter is monitored by the Coast Guard. We activated our EPIRB and sent out periodic marine radio SOSs in case a boat cruised by Manzanita Bay’s entrance. At 75 miles from Ketchikan, had I kayaked out for help, it would be nearly a week in arriving; additionally, I didn’t want to leave Tina in her condition.
Within a few hours we got a response from a small ecotourist tour boat that had just anchored at the bay’s mouth. The tide was up and they meant to explore the bay. Instead, the captain sent a small Zodiac to pick one of us up and transport us to the mother ship so we could contact the Coast Guard via the boat’s satellite radio.
Second only to my concern for my wife’s injury, the prospect of the expense of a 150-mile evacuation — with 19-foot kayaks and all our gear — overwhelmed me. I couldn’t let her depart alone, and I couldn’t abandon our boats and gear. Asher reassured me, saying he would pay for everything. He recognized his partial responsibility for Tina’s injury.
Emergency procedures out here are complex. Cellphones don’t work: there are no antennae. At 75 miles from Ketchikan, had I kayaked out for help, it would be nearly a week in arriving.
Asher arranged for a float plane to fly in that afternoon. It could take all three of us and our gear, but not our boats — a detail we’d have to work out after our return to Ketchikan.
We hustled to pack our gear and lug it to the water’s edge. The tide was receding fast. Would the plane arrive while there was enough water to land, load, and take off?
Finally we heard a motor — then saw the plane. The pilot circled once, landed, opened his door, and yelled, “You have one minute before I have to take off!” We ran through the shallows, arms loaded to the hilt, multiple times . . . with barely enough depth left for the plane to taxi and take off.
* * *
Asher paid for half the airlift . . . and he arranged to have the outfitter who had rented him his kayak pick up our boats — a full-day affair for which he also paid. Tina was advised to wait until she got home for medical evaluation, because of Ketchikan’s questionable specialist health services. Her rotator cuff wasn’t torn, just badly strained, yet still required immobilization.
By the time we caught the next Alaska Ferry back to Bellingham, the summer weather pattern had settled in, providing calm seas and gentle breezes for weeks on end. But had we continued up Behm Canal, we faced two days of granite cliff shores with only two ledges the Forest Service considered landable and campable. Considering the winter weather pattern, which was still holding, and the Forest Service’s undependable campsite locations, it would have been a dicey two days.
The lesson? Always question your libertarian premises . . .